Generally speaking the customs practised by officers were those of polite civilian society, with modifications to suit naval circumstances, plus other changes caused through historic development.
The name wardroom itself bears discussion. Before about 1700 each officer lived and messed in his own quarters, cramped as they were. The captain’s cabin, on the other hand, was known as the Great Cabin. Under it was the wardrobe, a locker often used to stow articles of value taken from prizes. When not in use for that purpose the officers used it to hang their spare uniforms. It is first spoken of as being used as a general officers’ mess about 1750, at which time it was of much greater size than a locker, and was renamed the wardroom.
Until the mid-19th century the gunroom was where the small-arms were stowed. Here the gunner lived, together with and in charge of the non-commissioned junior officers. Toward the end of that century it was thought advisable to have the warrant officers mess separately; it was as late as 1948 that warrant officers’ messes were abolished.
The firm rule about not calling anyone a liar in the mess is obvious and sensible — it avoids trouble and bad feelings. Likewise, is the rule regarding not drawing swords in the mess — to discourage duelling. In fact the rule usually observed is that one does not ever wear a sword in a strange mess; to do so in your own is frowned upon.
It is customary for officers, and for men as well, to remove their caps (cover) before entering a mess other than their own; this custom applies equally to officers’ messes, and should be observed when passing through seamen’s messdecks except on duty. The customary rule applies to cabins and onshore buildings as well. This is the same as the practice ashore — you do not wear a hat in someone else’s home, and though you may wear it in your own home you would not normally do so.
All wardroom drinking is social, solitary drinking is considered taboo. It is customary to provide drinks for other officers, particularly one’s friends, and then to toast the others with “cheers” contracted from the Englishman’s “cheerio”. In the R.N. it is a custom that foreign languages are not spoken in the mess unless foreign guests are present.
At a mess dinner it is forbidden to propose a toast before the Loyal Toast to the Sovereign, except that foreign heads of state are toasted first if foreign guests are present. In civilian circles it is permissible to drink toasts in water; naval superstition presupposes death by drowning for the personage toasted. Likewise a glass that rings tolls the death of a sailor; stop the ring and the Devil takes two soldiers in lieu. This will explain why naval officers never clink glasses in drinking a toast.
At mess dinners it used to be a custom to propose what was known as the toast of the day. The list that seems to be most commonly followed during the Napoleonic Era is:
Monday – our ships at sea
Tuesday – our men
Wednesday – ourselves, because no one else is likely to bother
Thursday – a bloody war or a sickly season (to ensure quicker promotion)
Friday – a willing foe and sea room
Saturday – wives and sweethearts – may they never meet (reply is made by the youngest officer present)
Sunday – absent friends
The then King of England, Charles II (1660 – 1685) is credited with authorising the drinking of the Loyal Toast while seated. When he rose in one of his ships to reply to a toast while seated, he struck his head on the low ceiling, not being used to the low head room these war ships had. He is reputed to have added “Gentlemen, your loyalty is not questioned”. Officers do not stand even when the National Anthem is played, except of course when the sovereign, a member of the Royal Family, or a foreign head of state is present, or when foreign guests are present and the head of any foreign state is toasted first, so our own sovereign will not suffer offence. Except for this ancient privilege of drinking the health of His Majesty while seated in naval messes, all toasts are drunk by naval officers while standing. Military officers of the Commonwealth conform to this practice when dining with us.
The Port or Madeira decanters are unstoppered, passed always to the left, and then stoppered, before the Loyal Toast is drunk. This practice suggests that the wine is served only for that purpose. If the port is passed again the decanters remain unstoppered until they are removed. The origin of the custom of passing the port always to the left is uncertain.
The custom at an officer’s wedding of forming an archway of swords, with their cutting edges upwards in the quinte or fifth guard position, symbolises the guarding of the couple as they enter upon their married life.
Finally two customs by which deference is shown to senior officers. A junior officer always enters a boat or coach first and leaves last. Although confusion exists on this point, a junior should precede his senior over the brow on going ashore and follow the senior officer onboard. This works at its best when a senior officer and his staff are calling because it enables the captain to greet the officer and lead him to his cabin without having to become ensnarled in staff officers. On departing the entourage can disappear over the brow or down the ladder, leaving the senior officer to engage in parting conversation with the captain.
Henry VIII ordered that “no captain shall take the wind of his admiral”, by which was meant the junior officer should pass to leeward of his senior so as not to inconvenience him by cutting off the wind from his sails. Similarly it has long been the custom to request permission to cross a senior’s bows, though the necessity for such a manoeuvre should be avoided if at all possible because it might require the senior to shorten sail or reduce speed to avoid collision. Officers observe this seamanlike practice in the mess: if they reach in front of another officer they say, “may I cross your bows?”
Courtesy of Craig V. Fisher (with LTCMD A.D. Taylor, C.D., R.C.N.) and HMS Richmond.
Image: Screencap from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (copyright Twentieth Century Fox 2003)